Berkeley-based startup engineers yeast to produce rare cannabinoids

photo of Demetrix scientist
Researchers at Demetrix have began producing cannabinoids using yeast, a more inexpensive and environmentally sustainable method.

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Researchers at the Berkeley-based startup Demetrix have engineered yeast to produce a variety of cannabinoids using less water, land and energy than traditional farming methods.

Co-founded by UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and bioengineering Jay Keasling, Demetrix utilizes patented technology to program yeast to produce high-purity cannabinoids. These can then be sold to consumer product companies, pharmaceutical companies and researchers, according to Cynthia Bryant, chief business officer at Demetrix.

Cannabinoids — the most common ones being THC and CBD — are the naturally extracted compounds found in cannabis plants. Bryant added that cannabinoids have been “skipped over by modern research” due to their inaccessibility.

However, Bryant added that Congress’s passage of the 2018 Farm Bill finally introduced legal avenues for proper cannabis research.

“Tides were changing in terms of government outlook on cannabinoids, especially non-psychoactive ones,” Bryant said. “This company started back in 2017 with seed funding and went from zero to commercializing our first cannabinoid in about three and a half years, which I think is a speed record.”

Demetrix was founded on fermentation technology developed in Keasling’s lab that allowed researchers to extract genes from cannabis, infuse them into baker’s yeast and engineer the yeast to produce cannabinoids.

Bryant added that Demetrix’s technology allows its researchers to produce rarer cannabinoids that are otherwise only found in smaller concentrations within the cannabis plant.

“We can do this very inexpensively; it’s just like brewing beer or making wine. You just grow the yeast up on sugar,” Keasling said. “The yeast, rather than producing ethanol, produces the cannabinoid. Then, you purify it from the fermentation broth and — if you’ve done all the engineering of the yeast right — you get a very high yield, and you convert a lot of the sugar into the cannabinoid.”

Keasling added that Demetrix plans to use this technology to mass-produce cannabigerol, or CBG, a rarer cannabinoid that shares properties with CBD.

Demetrix’s technology not only allows for a less expensive method of cannabinoid production but also prioritizes environmental sustainability in its technology, according to Keasling.

“Fermentation has a much lower carbon footprint than agriculturally sourced molecules that are the same,” Bryant said. “Oftentimes, it uses less water, less energy and less land utilization. All of those things provide for a greater environmental positive impact versus if you were to rely on agriculture as the only source to procure these ingredients.”

Bryant added that Demetrix is currently continuing research on various cannabinoids while also pivoting to commercialize its own CBG cannabinoid.

Demetrix’s research aims to understand how consumers can best utilize the different cannabinoids in their daily life through products such as topical skincare or supplements, according to Bryant.

“You don’t just stop at one cannabinoid, so we have active research and development working to build strains and technology for our second, third, fourth, fifth cannabinoids because this is a very rich field and class of compounds. We are very much focused on providing access so that people around the world can benefit from having access to these molecules,” Bryant said.

Contact Rachel Raps at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rachelraps_dc.